Before the Menders settle into their Bessemer City garage for rehearsal on a recent Friday, the band's longhaired, bearded, 1970s throwback of a singer and keyboardist has an idea.
"Hold on! Hold on!" Johnny Boswell says, excitedly, as we begin shooting the photos for this story. He's wearing faded jeans and an all-black combo of button-down shirt, sport coat and wide-rimmed hat, a black stone and coral necklace dangling from his neck. Boswell is recalling some of the famous rock-star imagery of the '60s and '70s. "I got this Black Sabbath/cowboy/Batman thing I wanna try," he says.
Boswell finds a suitcase-looking piece of equipment to elevate himself above his cohorts, singer and guitarist Jesse Watson, guitarist and harmony vocalist Wes Forbus and drummer Phillip Anderson. They all laugh and shrug their shoulders. Typical Boswell behavior. He's the idea man.
"OK, y'all gather round me here," Boswell tells the others as he balances on the suitcase and dramatically raises his arms. His long, black scarf creates the illusion of wings in a simulation of the classic 1973 album cover for Black Sabbath's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.
And the result? Well, it's picture-perfect.
With Boswell hovering behind his mates sporting an ominous skyward gaze, the image looks more like your average vintage publicity shot of a proto-metal band than anything from 2017. But the members of Menders weren't even born when Ozzy Osbourne's pioneering ball-cruncher of a band was in its heyday. What's more, the Menders don't do metal, although Boswell, 38, does have the pipes of a classic early-metal screamer. Just listen to his blood-curdling shrieks on "Shiny Lil' Devil," from the Menders' self-titled debut of 2014.
- Photo by Mark Kemp
Tonight, though, Boswell and company are focused on more recent material. The Menders will be performing a release party for their latest album, Nina, this week at Freeman's Pub in Gastonia. On this album, Boswell puts his gurgling shrieks to a few more tracks, including "Like Me Too" and "The Demon." But as much as I admire Boswell's unbridled rock 'n' roll spirit, it wasn't his songs that initially brought me to this story. I was first taken by an acoustic YouTube video of the band doing Watson's "Carolina Highway," a deeply Southern folk song that sounds more like it came out of the Greenwich Village Bleecker Street folk revival of the early '60s.
"My family is supposedly related to Doc Watson, so there was a lot of folk and bluegrass when I was growing up," says 27-year-old Watson.
It's a couple of hours later, and the band has finished rehearsing and retreated to an old couch in the garage. They're surrounded by empty beer bottles, music gear and all manner of ephemera: photos of Elvis, Prince and Paul McCartney; a skull-and-crossbones banner; vintage figurines; random keyboards and a old cello with no strings.
Watson's father was born and raised on the side of Kirby Mountain in Lenoir, just an hour south of the late flat-picking legend Doc Watson's hometown of Deep Gap. "My dad loved bluegrass, but he never really decided what he wanted to be — sometimes he's a biker, sometimes he's a hick — so he has really eclectic tastes in music," Watson says. "I just listened to what he listened to."
That is, until Weezer rocked his world. When Watson discovered Rivers Cuomo's pop-punk band as a teenager, his tastes rambled from Doc to pop and then on to the classic rock of Zeppelin and Queen. All of that shows up in Watson's songs, in which he plucks the folk center from each of those genres, adds an element of Appalachian storytelling, and makes it all sound new and personal. With Boswell's garage-rock keyboards and rich harmony vocals from him and Forbus, Watson's songs sometimes even hint at the British folk-rock sound of the Fairport Convention — a band he says he never even listened to.
"Oh wow," Watson says when I make the reference. "Thanks. . . I guess."
Watson formed the Menders as an acoustic trio in 2011, when he and an earlier member, banjo player Shawn Sutton, first met Boswell in Gastonia. "Me and Shawn had just moved into an apartment and we were doing a little folk-duo thing together, when we saw Johnny at this guitar circle at Freeman's Pub," Watson remembers. "He was up there screaming and playing acoustic guitar, and we were like, 'This is kind of cool. I bet he's in a band."
Actually, Boswell was pretty much done with playing in bands. He had recently moved from Wilmington and formed a combo that played Nuggets-style garage rock, but it fell apart. "I felt like I was finished with making music professionally. I was burned out on it," he says. "I thought, 'I'm just going to be a producer and cultivate some talent and record them and see how that works out.' Then I met Jesse and Shawn."
Boswell had started the guitar circle at Freeman's Pub as a way to bring musicians in the Gaston County area together in a casual atmosphere. "I started it with this Irish guy named Monty, who was a drinking buddy of mine," Boswell says. "He had played with everybody from the Pogues to Joe Strummer [of the Clash], and for some reason he was living in Gastonia. We did the guitar circle with no microphones or anything — just something where everybody could come in and play and have fun together."
Boswell, Watson and Sutton soon began writing and performing together, but then Sutton found Jesus and left the group. A couple of drummers passed through before the current Menders lineup coalesced, and in the years since — except for one 5-song acoustic EP — the band has downplayed its acoustic side. Nina rocks much harder than its full-length predecessor — "I don't think there's even one acoustic guitar on this record," Watson says — but the folk base is still evident in songs like "Out of the Light," with its haunting harmonies and spooky storyline about a nagging apparition. Same with the twangy "Foot in the Grave." The Menders even include a plugged-in version of that acoustic song I heard them do on YouTube, "Carolina Highway," transforming the gentle, foreboding love ballad into full-on, muscular rock.
"When I look back at it now, that first album was us sort of segueing from more of an acoustic-folk sound to more of a rock-band sound," Watson says. "You can even hear it happening from the first few songs on that album to the later ones. I mean, the last song ["Shiny Lil' Devil"] is just straight-forward garage-rock."
Boswell takes a slug from his beer and smiles — devilishly. "You know, the whole concept of this band is that, uh. . . well, you see, we obviously are in love with each other." His bandmates laugh nervously, wondering what pearl of wisdom is going to drop from their idea man's mouth this time.
"No seriously," he goes on, and furrows his brow. "And we want everybody else to feel that love."